Hindi-Urdu: Politics and Poetics of a Contested Linguistic Landscape

By Daniele Speziale

Though a lover of Hindi/Urdu poetry, my first encounter with the language was not exactly poetic. In 2015, as part of an exchange, I moved from my hometown, the Italian port of Savona, to a small village in faraway Malaysia – my first time experiencing the mighty monsoons, vibrant spices and interconnected tongues of the Indian Ocean region. It was there, at Malaysian Indian weddings, that my young self discovered the sheer fun of dancing to Sheila Ki Jawaani and Chikni Chameli at weddings. “You know what, these are pretty catchy” – I thought as I entered a Bollywood rabbit hole that lasts until today. Eventually, lyrics after lyrics and movie after movie, I picked up the language more and more – and with it, the poetics that pervade texts and dialogues. 

When the 2020 lockdown began, I found myself stuck in a tiny apartment in the Netherlands (where I studied Political Science) with an Urdu Grammar textbook and Ralph Russell’s “A Thousand Yearnings, a brilliant introductory anthology to Urdu Literature. My passive absorption of random Filmi vocabulary like “piya”, “deewaana” and “zulfon ka rang sunehra” thus turned into an active exploration of the language’s inner workings. Then, as an exercise of sorts, I started trying my hand at composing my own poems. As of today, I am a budding “ghazalkaar” (ghazal-composer) who goes by the “takhallus” (pen name) of Raahi Italvi. 

After all these years of exploring the language, this is the first time I put my linguistic, literary journey into writing – together with a few socio-political questions I encountered along the way.

The age-old question: what are “Hindi” and “Urdu”? 

The first thing a foreign learner notices when approaching Indian languages is just how thin the line between “Hindi” and “Urdu” is. So thin, that even native speakers struggle to point where one ends and the other starts. The confusion reaches such levels that an Indian friend once asked me: “Is ‘Urdu’ just another name for ‘Persian’?”. After years of reading, my conclusion is we need to start seeing Hindi-Urdu as different registers of the same language, rather than wholly distinct languages. 

Imagine a colorful continuum going from Sanskrit, on one end, all the way to Perso-Arabic, on the other. Depending on how Sanskritized or Perso-Arabized your lexicon is, what you are saying will be more likely to classify as Hindi (in the first case) or Urdu (in the second) – but still along a continuum which, in linguistics, is usually referred to as “Hindustani”. In most cases, I always found it more useful to speak of a unified Hindustani language. After all, “Hindi” speakers are way more likely to refer to their friend by the Persianism “yaar” than by the Sanskritism “mitr”. Likewise, Pakistanis speaking informal “Urdu” will call a flower “phool” and a cloud “baadal” just like their Hindi-speaking counterparts, instead of resorting to Persianism like “gul” and “abr”. 

Some may counter-argue that, still, Urdu is distinguishable by the use of the Arabic script, and Hindi by that of Devanagari. But does this distinction hold? If we look at written production in pre-Partition India, we would find magazines called “Swaraj” distributed in the Urdu script, and the slogan “Inqilab Zindabad” circulating in Devanagari. Does this make “Swaraj” an Urdu word and “Inqilab” a Hindi one? Again, the divide collapses. 

All in all, the purism involved in the terms “Hindi” and “Urdu” hardly reflects South Asia’s linguistic syncretism. Still, in the case of artistic writing, authors might choose to embellish their texts with the prestigious lexicon of Persian and Sanskrit, in which case we might say they are using an “Urdu” or “Hindi” register. How did such a complex divide become so cemented, and how does it affect Hindustani poetry appreciation?

Love-hate patterns: why people romanticize either Hindi or Urdu, and sometimes dislike the other

When I was taking my first steps into the Hindustani culture, besides having to make sense of the Hindi/Urdu divide, I was also baffled by the romanticizing outlook that Indians have towards either of the two languages. To my foreign ears, words like “saadhu” and “jaadu”, “pyaar” and “yaar”, “karam” and “qasam” sounded all rather similar, even as I could usually point out which ones had Sanskrit or Perso-Arabic origins. Why was it the case that, under Filmi songs, some people would comment that they prefer Urdu lyrics over Hindi ones, while others threatened to boycott Bollywood for its use of “foreign” Urdu? 

Hindustani went through multiple historical moments that split it into “Hindi” and “Urdu”, all of which slowly cemented popular perceptions about these in India’s collective perception. British language policy, which aimed at landing a final blow to Mughal culture by eradicating Persian, allowed for the development of Hindi’s highly Sanskritized register. “Shuddh Hindi”, which embodied the alliance between British and Sanskrit-savvy Brahmin elites, achieved a dominant, “sarkaari” status over Urdu, even as it was a relatively artificial idiom. Peggy Mohan, in “Wanderers, Kings, Merchants”, traces how the British coined “Shuddh Hindi” words entirely based on English syntax, such as “prabandhit” for “restricted”, where “pra-bandh-it” is the exact replica of “re-strict-ed”.

This pure Hindi was not just distant from people’s spoken tongues, it was also a language that engaged very little with popular arts. In “Anthems of Resistance”, Raza and Ali Husain Mir argue that Hindi writers, by virtue of their elitism, never bothered engaging in “vulgar” mediums such as cinema – hence why Bollywood dialogues and lyrics came to be dominated by the more daring and progressive Urdu writers. I find it ironic, then, that Hindi-language conservatives nowadays hate Bollywood for its Urdu-ness (often on Islamophobic grounds) when it was Hindi authors who stayed away from it in the first place.

While these two stages are just small moments in Hindustani’s long history, they illustrate how Hindi and Urdu acquired the position they have today: the former a hegemonic register with, due to its top-down-ness, limited popular appeal; the latter a more marginal idiom, but with a reputation of romanticism and lyricism. 

Revamping Urdu knowledge, reclaiming Hindi poetics 

Eventually, the alienation that Urdu suffered in India led to a deplorable situation, where even self-declared Urdu lovers often see the language through romanticizing, exoticist lenses. Romanticization leads to a surface-level appreciation of Urdu as an “aesthetic” more than an actual language, while its exotification perpetuates the perception of Urdu as foreign. 

The situation of Urdu poetry is even more dismal. I remember my struggle in convincing an incredulous friend that “Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna” and “Saare Jahaan Se Accha” are ghazals – her disbelief being based on the misconception that ghazals are invariably love poems, while it is in fact the couplets-based, rhyme-following meter which makes a ghazal. Similarly, when people romanticize Faiz’s nazm (not a ghazal!) “Mujhse Pehli Si Mohabbat”, I always ensure they get to know the actual text. “There are sorrows in the world far worse than love’s”, says Faiz before devoting two full stanzas to the pus-oozing, disease-stricken bodies of the poor, exploited masses. The poem, with which Faiz rejected apolitical romanticism in favor of socially-oriented art, is hardly ever considered in its entirety: viral renditions, exploiting andreproducing the “romantic Urdu poetry” aesthetic, have instead almost crystallized a repackaged, “sanitized” version of the same. 

If this is Urdu’s position in the mainstream, it cannot be said that Hindi poetry is afforded much attention either. The equally well-rooted misconception that Hindi is a traditionalist, administrative and academic language distances many from its poetics. Wealths of progressive poets like Dhumil, Vidrohi, Gorakh Pandey, Agyeya and Baba Nagarjun, together with feminist poetesses Mahadevi Verma, Kamla Bhasin, and Anamika, are thus disregarded in the subconscious perception that “Hindi is not as poetic as Urdu”. The neglect of revolutionary Hindi voices, in turn, allows for conservative forces to perpetuate their monopoly on Hindi poetics. I thus believe reclaiming Hindi for progressive purposes would pull the rug from conservatives’ feet and, while caste orthodoxy might have been intrinsic to Hindi’s development, it must be remembered that languages are constantly contested, repurposed, reappropriated and mobilized for new goals. 

Towards the future of Hindustani poetry

The poetry of Hindustani (Hindi, Urdu and every color in between) represents one of South Asia’s most invaluable heritages, but its appreciation and preservation requires a learning which pop-culture alone (as with the Faiz example above) cannot provide: from the forms that poems take, such as ghazals, to Hindustani’s enormous range of vocabulary; from the identity politics that afflict the language, to the pre-Western literary standards that poets followed for centuries. If this were not to happen, Hindustani poetry will suffer what Akbar Allahabadi predicted in his poem “Nayi Tahzeeb”: guzishta azmaton ke tazkire bhi rah na jaenge / kitaabon hi men dafn afsaana-e-jaah-o-hasham honge (not one memoir will remain of past greatness / as tales of our grandeur shall lie buried in books).